By Paula Walter
This past week, the Appalachian Miles for Smiles mobile unit could be found in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church in Mountain City. Approximately 100 people had signed up to partake in a free two-day dental clinic that offered not only dental cleanings, but also fillings and extractions. As part of an effort to care for the entire patient, blood pressure checks, x-rays and blood sugar checks were also available. A link has been found between dental health and heart health.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Ellen Watkins, Johnson County’s Red Cross Coordinator. “I quit counting after 400 phone calls.” According to Watkins, the majority of the patients at the dental mobile clinic were there for extractions. “I have cried so much,” she added. “It’s heartbreaking. There are old people and veterans who can’t get help.” Watkins also had a waiting list of 46 people in case some of the patients did not show up for their appointments. Watkins had previously met staff affiliated with Appalachian Miles for Smiles and asked why they did not come to Johnson County to offer their services and received a reply that no one had ever asked. The dental clinic this week was a result of Watkins reaching out for help for the residents of Johnson County in need. “We’ve gotten close to the 100 mark,” she added.
Appalachian Miles for Smiles is a Christian outreach program that touches the lives of those who live in Sullivan, Greene, Washington and Hawkins counties in Tennessee, and in the counties of Wise, Lee and Scott in Virginia. It is part of Friends in Need, a service that provides both primary medical and dental care where payments are on a sliding scale, based on the federal poverty level. The clinic offers continuing care that includes x-rays and a dental plan, in addition to medical care. Watkins met “We go outside the area where there is a need,” said Bruce Sites, executive director of Friends in Need. “It is a mission. It’s a faith-based mission.”
According to Sites, the five-bay Appalachian Miles for Smiles mobile unit has been in operation for one year. They have converted two tractor-trailers into mobile dental units that are equipped with chairs, dental equipment, dentists and dental hygienists. “It is state of the art,” said Sites. “We can go anywhere in Appalachia.” If purchased new, the unit would cost over $1,000,000.
“There was one client that made this whole event come to life for me,” said Watkins. According to Watkins, one elderly woman was apprehensive about seeing the dentist because although multiple attempts had been made in the past, no one could ever numb her mouth so dental work could be performed. Despite her protests of “I know there’s no sense in this,” and “I don’t want to waste your time,” Watkins was able to convince the woman to give it a try. Not long after, she walked out of the unit, a big smile on her face, gauze in her mouth and a thumbs up directed at Watkins. “She had eight teeth pulled,” Watkins said with a voice full of tears. ”She had no hope. She had no hope.”
According to Watkins, 82 patients were seen at the dental clinic in Mountain City. There were 283 extractions, 51 fillings, 20 cleanings and five chest x-rays, amounting to $46,515 in dental work.
From January of 2017 through the month of June, dental professionals in the Appalachian Miles for Smiles units have traveled 633 miles and have pulled over 1,000 teeth and 400 fillings. “We have extracted up to 20 teeth on a one person,” Sites said. According to Sites, Appalachian Miles for Smiles partner with churches who provide a location and often provide lunches for the volunteers.
The medical professionals that provide dental care on the mobile dental unit this week were from California, Elizabethton, Abingdon, Johnson City and Kingsport. Each of them donated their time and talents to make the dental clinic a success. “The volunteers love it,” Sites said.
An endeavor of this magnitude could not be possible without the support of the community. “Business have helped, churches have helped and people in the county have helped. If the community hadn’t stepped up,” Watkins said. “we could never have done this.”